Blaine F. Elswood: 1948-2020

Blaine Elswood in southern Africa, circa 1973

I recently learned from Blaine Elswood’s daughter, Elise, that he had died of prostate cancer in Costa Rica in August 2020.  I am sorry to hear this, for I consider Elswood, as he always preferred to be known, to be one of the heroes of the early investigation into the OPV theory of AIDS origin.   (Another unsung hero was Louis Pascal who, like Elswood, was a highly unusual man.)

I only knew Elswood through our mutual interest in the origins of the pandemic, and never met him.  Apart from the various emails that we exchanged down the years, the following eulogy therefore relies on large amounts of information from his family and friends.

Elswood was born in September 1948 into a Mormon family living in Salt Lake City; he had two sisters and a brother, and was the youngest sibling.  He was still young when his father moved in with another woman, leaving the four children to be raised by their mother, Edith.  Apparently Elswood never quite fitted in with “his very Mormon family”, and was teased for being “sensitive”.  None the less, he was a strict adherent to Latter Day Saint doctrines, and during the late 1960s spent two years as a Mormon missionary in Ireland. 

During this period his political beliefs were those of the hard right.  He was “a vocal and active member of the John Birch Society, [who] manned their bookstore every Saturday, proselytising everyone [with] his political beliefs, which included getting us out of the United Nations…and wanting to impeach Earl Warren”, the progressive-minded Chief Justice of the era. 

He joined the University of Utah, and graduated in history, probably in 1972.  During his undergraduate classes he met a woman, Cynthia, with whom he got along. She writes that “He delighted in being an agent provocateur for radical conservatism.  He was very intelligent, but also quite sarcastic….We did nothing but argue, yet he was never dull.” After graduating, Elswood moved to South Africa, where he took a masters in creative writing at the University of Cape Town.  Cynthia writes that he returned to “Salt Lake somewhat traumatized by his African experiences in 1973”. 

On his return, Elswood followed Cynthia to Los Angeles, and they ended up getting married in the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City in March 1974.   Cynthia writes that “it was a poor ‘fit’ from the beginning. Elise was born 14 months after our marriage and I left shortly thereafter, by mutual consent.”  Soon after this Elswood began the process of  leaving the Mormon church, though a male friend from this era recalls that he still used to wear the garments for some time afterwards, although the friend supplied him with his first pair of “gentile underwear”.   In 1975 he bought an African grey parrot called Douglas, who remained a much-loved part of the family for many years.   Apparently he was named after Ian Douglas Smith, the last Prime MInister of Rhodesia before it achieved Independence in 1979, who was one of Elswood’s heroes.  During the seventies Elswood was a passionate opponent of disinvestment in South Africa and when he could afford it would buy Krugerrand.   He was also a fervent anti-abortion activist and an avid reader of Ayn Rand.  Apparently as the seventies progressed “through Rand’s writings…he emerged as an ardent atheist.” Although he was actively gay in this period, he did not yet define himself as such.  

Around the start of the 1980s he moved to San Francisco, where he became an active member of the gay scene and, according to his ex-wife, “became the polar opposite of everything he had ever espoused”.   By the mid-eighties he had lost touch with most of his friends from Salt Lake City, and when he did return to Utah for vacations it appeared that he had changed radically, for he was now openly left-wing.  Elswood also changed his mind about Douglas, who surprised everyone by laying an egg.

Before long, as the AIDS epidemic worsened, Elswood began to be active in the fight against AIDS.  From 1985 he began to set up “guerilla clinics” to help people in the early stages of AIDS get access to drug treatments which were not available in the US.   By this stage he was learning a lot about medical matters by doing research at the UCSF library, and he was generous in sharing these findings with others.  His writing in this era displayed intelligence and a refusal to be silenced by those who assumed that they knew better than him.  

Some time early in the 1990s Elswood became interested in the origins of the AIDS epidemic. He was a good investigator, and when he came across the details of Koprowski’s early trials with CHAT polio vaccine in the Belgian Congo in the 1950s, he immediately recognised that there was a coincidence in place and time with the first appearances of HIV and AIDS.  In August 1991 he contacted a good freelance writer on medical maters, Tom Curtis, saying that he had a dynamite story to tell him about.  Tom quickly saw the power of the Elswood argument, did some further background research, and was hooked.  He made contact with Rolling Stone, feeling it might be a good place to publish such an article.  Many years later I asked Elswood about what happened next, and he described the process as follows:

“Tom Curtis got his commission from Rolling Stone and reached out to me in a panic for help, asking that I outline the polio vaccines case for him, which I did over three days and sent to him. (His Rolling Stone piece was based upon my article and not the other way around as you once thought.) I then shared it with Raphael Stricker [a doctor based at the California Pacific Health Center in San Francisco], who got all wide-eyed and said that he and I should publish it in a medical journal (he was always trying to publish stuff all the time). I was indifferent but agreed. He then sent it off to Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur, who was an acquaintance of his. Montagnier and his editorial board approved it as a full article in Research In Virology. I then had to inform Tom that the draft article I wrote for him for Rolling Stone was going to be published by the Pasteur. He freaked in a major way and was afraid that it would scoop his Rolling Stone piece. When his article in Rolling Stone finally came out, he explicitly mentioned that our article had been accepted for publication by the Pasteur. I assume that caused Koprowski et al to go wide-eyed themselves and put pressure on Research In Virology to withdraw their acceptance of the article, allowing instead….for us to publish a stupid little letter there. Stricker was still intent on publishing our article, however, and many months…later, it was finally accepted for publication by Medical Hypotheses. It was quite understandable that you thought it was just a rehash of Tom’s RS piece and not the original outline for it!!!!”  Although this account might be a little harsh on Curtis in a couple of places, it is compatible with the facts as I know them.

During the period after the publication of the Rolling Stone article I was given Elswood’s details by Curtis, and wrote him a letter.   He was snappy and bright in his communications, but also open and informative. He shared his latest findings, including his contact with a gay videofilm-maker, Chuck Cyberski, who after reading Tom’s piece had decided to make contact with Leonard Hayflick, who used to work with Koprowski at the Wistar Institute. In around 1960 Hayflick had pioneered the use of a new type of human cell, the human diploid cell strain, for polio vaccine production, and now in 1992 Cyberski tracked Hayflick down to a gerontology conference at which he would be speaking.   Wearing a pair of fluffy bunny slippers (for by then he had AIDS-related neuropathy), Cyberski did a ten-minute interview with Hayflick which revealed some remarkable details. 

Hayflick told him that he, Plotkin and Koprowski had recently gone to Paris to visit Luc Montagnier, then head virologist at the Pasteur Institute, and the editor of Research in Virology.  It became clear that the three Americans had pointed out to Montagnier that if he published the piece by Elswood and Stricker about Koprowski’s vaccinations in the Congo, then others might decide to publish information about French scientists such as PIerre Lepine, who in the late 1950s and early 1960s had led a team who made polio vaccines in baboon tissues from Africa and later tested the vaccines in the same geographical areas.  The offer to publish the article had been contingent on Elswood’s agreement that it should be sent to Dr Koprowski, so that his comments could be invited for publication.  However, after his discussion with the Americans, Montagnier and his editorial board decided to withdraw their offer to publish Elswood’s article and instead offered to publish a short letter.   This eventually appeared in March 1993 as “Polio Vaccines and the Origin of AIDS”  [Res. Virol; 1993; 144(2); 175-7]. Attached to the letter was a lengthy note from the editorial board which emphasised the unlikelihood of the hypothesis being correct. 

A year later, in March 1994, the original version of the paper was published infull in Medical Hypotheses [1994; 42; 347-354. See also the “Clarification”, published as: Medical Hypotheses; 1995; 44; 226.]   The paper was cautious, for it referred to Koprowski only as “an American researcher”, although Elswood later claimed that this was done not so much to protect Koprowski as to indict American researchers in general, for he was confident that there were many “others of his stripe in this country”.  His article told the basic story of the arrangement made with the Belgians to construct a chimpanzee colony just outside Stanleyville, and of the vaccine trials that were conducted in the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi in 1957-60.  It advanced its hypothesis carefully, scientifically and in measured language.  At the end, it acknowledged that although the authors had not known it when they prepared their original manuscript in September 1991, another researcher, Louis Pascal, had already come up with a very similar version of the same idea.  Pascal’s paper on the subject had been published in December 1991 as Science and Technology Analysis Working Paper No. 9, entitled “What Happens When Science Goes Bad”; the publisher had been Brian Martin,  an academic at Wollongong University in Australia. Word of Pascal’s paper quickly spread, and within a few months Martin had posted out copies to more than a hundred researchers.  Martin later published Elswood and Stricker’s article as well, after he set up his own  web-site in 1996. 

In October 1994 Brian Martin travelled to the US. His visit included a two-day meeting at Tom Curtis’s place in Galveston, Texas with Curtis, Elswood, and Malcolm Davidson, who had been invited to attend as someone who was in contact with Louis Pascal.  (It was apparent to all that “Pascal” was a pseudonym used to hide his identity, though the reasons for this could only be guessed.)  Elswood decided that Davidson was Pascal, a conclusion with which Brian and I disagreed, based on a number of factors. 

By then Elswood knew that I was in the process of writing a book on the subject, but he continued to share his knowledge in a generous way. He was not seeking personal glory, but as someone who was a natural sceptic and politically savvy, he clearly saw these events as a fascinating unreported conundrum that needed to be solved.  In his researches, he spent a lot of time comparing notes with Billi Goldberg, a 6 foot 2 inch former Marine and transsexual, who Blaine said “reminded me of the transsexual football player in “The World According to Garp”.”  Elswood wrote that they first met after Goldberg contacted him after “she became dissatisfied as a volunteer at Project Inform, an AIDS activist information bureau that was really a front for the drug companies, pushing their dubious and often deadly products to AIDS communities.” Goldberg was a devoted scanner of the computer boards that were increasingly beginning to be published on the Net.  The two friends clearly talked late into the night on many occasions, and came up with a number of original ideas, including many that related to the genesis of AIDS.

In early 2000 Goldberg, again with Raphael Stricker as co-author, published an enlarged version of the OPV theory which incorporated the use of human diploid cell strain vaccines in Africa. [B. Goldberg and R.B. Stricker: “Bridging the Gap: Human Diploid Cell Strains and the Origin of AIDS”; J. Theor. Biol.; 2000; 204; 497-503.]   I differed with them on two key pieces of evidence, and although I later concluded that HDCS vaccines could have played a late role in the Congo trials, I did not believe that this was crucial to the OPV hypothesis. 

In August 1999 my book The River was published, and a few weeks later I went on-line for the first time and discovered the joys of email. Within 24 hours my inbox began rattling with various pieces of feedback and forensic commentary from Elswood and Goldberg.  They were both enthusiastically positive about the book, but there were endless small points on which they felt they needed to challenge me.  After a while this became exhausting.  I began to feel that I was getting it in both ears: from the OPV sceptics on one side, and from the well-meaning Elswood and Goldberg on the other.  I had to ask them to hold back a little which, to be fair, they did.  Looked at in retrospect, I believe that they were such quick thinkers and natural cynics that they would have been excellent allies had they attended the Royal Society meeting in September 2000. 

As the years progressed, Elswood became disenchanted with the San Francisco scene.  He disappeared to Brazil for a while in the late 1990s, and briefly considered emigrating there. I am told that at some point he married a Brazilian woman to help her gain entry to the US.  In late 1999 or early 2000 he heard that his mother, Edith, had broken her hip, and because he believed that she was not receiving help from his siblings he returned to Pleasant Hill, Utah, in order to look after her.  He nursed Edith back to health and continued to care for her for the rest of her days.   In 2005, after many years of not communicating, he also spent some time with his daughter, Elise. 

In 2011 Edith reached the age of 100, and agreed to leave Utah with her son, who wanted to emigrate.   They must have made an odd couple when they arrived a month or so later in Costa Rica.  Apparently Edith enjoyed living on the edge of a rain forest, in a tiny house which they quite often shared with large reptiles and tropical bugs.  One photo that Elswood sent me showed a snake skin ten feet long, which its owner had sloughed off in the foundations beneath their house.  Edith died in 2014, a month short of her 103rd birthday.  Blaine posted a death notice that read: “Many people hope to go to Paradise when they die, but a few are lucky enough to die in Paradise.” 

During these years Elswood wrote several novels, and between 2010 and 2015 he self-published five of them under the pen-name Hans Von Osten.  This seemed to be derived from a 1911 book by Oscar Pfungst entitled “Clever Hans (The Horse of Mr Von Osten): A Contribution to Experimental Animal and Human Psychology”, which would be rather typical of Elswood’s polymath explorations. The novels were original and quirky and related to different experiences in his past. They included “Shiver: The LIfe and Times of a Serial Marrier” (2010); “Kansas PIty” (2013), a hectic account of the San Francisco scene which ended with some observations about the origins of the pandemic; “This Happy LIfe” (2013), an account of his life in Costa Rica (my personal favourite); and “Roundtower” (2014) and “Sister Morgan” (2015) which were parts 1 and 2 of “The Devil in Ireland”.  Most of the book covers were designed by Elise, who was keen to demonstrate her rapprochement with her father.  

Meanwhile, however, Elswood continued to fall out with past friends and lovers.  One old friend got dropped after he declined to review one of Elswood’s books on Amazon. And in 2017 Elswood sent a series of emails to his ex-wife, accusing her of various things during their brief marriage of 43 years before.   He copied these emails to Elise, who asked him to stop doing so.  In response Elswood dropped her as well. 

I got back in contact with Elswood in 2017, after the death of Tom Curtis.  We had a quite lengthy exchange of emails, during which he provided his final thoughts on a number of issues, including the fact that Tom Curtis had been paid $10,000 by Stephen Soderbergh to write a screenplay based on his article, “The Origins of AIDS”; apparently Curtis spent years on the project which, however, never got close to resulting in a film.  Elswood also told me his thoughts about the arrival of HIV-1 in the United States.  He quite firmly believed that this had happened as a result of a hepatitis B vaccine trial which had begun in the seventies (actually in 1974) and continued for several years, with multi-partner gay men one of the groups vaccinated. Elswood believed that some of the alleged disproofs of this hypothesis that had been announced at the time were convenient fabrications.  He argued his case logically and I was struck by the fact that some of what he proposed tied in with my own further researches.

During this period Elswood told me that he had a big dumpy bin of his old papers and notes which was stored at Elise’s house. In the end we agreed that if I paid the freight charges, Elise would pack up the papers and post them to me. This turned out to be an immense job because she was unwell at the time, but she very kindly completed it.  When the huge package arrived, I discovered that most of the papers pertained to his guerilla clinics of the eighties and nineties, but none the less I found a number of valuable documents about origins which I did not have, such as a transcript of Chuck Cyberski’s interview with Leonard Hayflick.

In 2018 I noticed a change in Elswood’s tone; perhaps this was because he feared that he was getting prostate cancer.  He sent me an ironical email titled “Life in Costa Rica sucks” featuring two photographs. One showed a collection of potted plants on his verandah, with the rain forest a hundred metres behind, and the other showed someone (presumably him) sucking the nectar from a freshly-harvested coconut.  During this period he told one friend that he had become a Buddhist, but in fact it seems that he became a practicing Hindu.  Early in 2019 he told me that in Hindu teaching there were four stages of life, and that he was now in the third stage, “Vanasprastha” or “living in the forest”. Apparently he had entered this stage on his 70th birthday, and he said that he no longer owned the house in which he was living, and that he found the process “incredibly liberating”.   He said that by his 75th birthday he would be entering the fourth stage, “Sannyasa”, in which one prepared for death by seeking enlightenment through performing ascetic spiritual practices.

However, events overtook him.  On February 1st 2020 he sent me a brief email in which he announced: “Just so you know if I suddenly become incommunicado forever, I have just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. I am waiting for the hospital to call with an appointment for surgery but have decided not to undergo chemo or radiation if it has spread. (If AIDS doesn’t kill you and this new coronavirus doesn’t catch you, old age eventually will! 😊).”

In the days that followed, he sent me a lot of material on the COVID-19 epidemic from certain web-sites that he followed, notably Zerohedge and RT.  Both were predominantly  right-wing sites, but a number of the Zerohedge articles were well reasoned and quite shrewd in their analysis.  I spent a couple of weeks looking at the COVID situation, and eventually posted an article entitled “COVID-19 and the Origin of AIDS Debate” in late April 2020.   I sent Elswood a copy, and he responded “Great job, Ed!!!”.  He sent a few more links in early May, but after that I heard no more from him.  In November I sent him a newsy email which ended with the following: “I hope that Costa Rica continues to be good for you.  To my mind your decision to go there was brave, and suggests that you’re adaptable and good at fitting in.  Whenever I think of you there I see you in a happy place.  Am I right?”

As it turned out, he was indeed in a happy place, for he had passed away three months earlier.  Elise tells me that he is buried above his mother, and she believes that the small house and land now belong to “his worker, Roberto”.  It is not known who ended up with Douglas the female parrot, for African greys can allegedly live up to 100 years. But perhaps Roberto inherited him as well.

As I wrote at the start, I think of Blaine Elswood as one of the heroes of the early AIDS pandemic, and he certainly helped me greatly with my own researches.  But I also see him as a man who for much of his life was dissatisfied, and appears to have been confronting demons. He also seems to have been searching for a cause to believe in – and hopefully he may have found that cause towards the end of his life.

I have learned a great deal about Elswood over the last few days, while I have been seeking information from those who knew him.   I realise that there may well be significant gaps in this eulogy, but my thanks go to those friends and family members who contributed their memories and observations.

Ed Hooper. April 12th, 2021.